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Can wireless networks be used in hazardous locations.?

Posted on 2003-10-27
Medium Priority
Last Modified: 2010-04-17
Our company provides field services for Landbased drilling rigs. The setup involves computer terminals placed in trailers on drilling location that all connect to a Novell server by means of co-ax cables. Frequent movement of trucks and heavy machinery sometimes damages even the deeply entrenched conduits that carry the co-ax across.
Given this situation I am planning of get the network converted to wireless...but lack of info regarding the safety of the wireless LAN's technology in enviroments where natural gas vapours are commonly present in the ambient Air is delaying my plans. My management cites the incidents of cell phones around the world where people have caught fire when refuelling thier vehicles at gas stations as a discouragement to my Idea..Do cell phones and wireless LAn equipment share the same type of wireless energy....?
what would be the safest wireless LAN equipment to use in my scenario..?

would be glad if someone could help.
Question by:fieldtechsupport
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LVL 34

Expert Comment

ID: 9634201
The "cellphone set people refueling their cars on fire" is a bit of urban legend bunko. There's a program on The Learning Channel, I think, called "Mythbusters" - they took on this exact myth. They built a containment structure, saturated it with gas fumes, and activated and called (i.e. caused to ring) a cellphone placed therein. Nothing happened. They ended up having to put a static arc generator in the enclosure to create an explosion. The cellphone was quite insufficient, even in at atmosphere saturated with gas fumes (they tried it at varying levels of gas saturation).

Besides, the myth was that the voltage jump as the cellphone "rang" (and made noise, which takes energy, dissipates heat, and has the potential to create static) caused the ignition. WLAN technology is completely different and you don't get "ring voltage".

In short, management is (as usual) a clue-free zone and don't know what in the heck they are talking about. Have they banned light-bulbs? Desk phones? CRT monitors? All of those pose at least as much "risk" as WLAN gear - a color CRT monitor can store over 40KV in its coils - unplug it, open the case and touch the coils with a screwdriver if you don't believe me (try this at your own risk and make sure your health insurance is paid up first). If management won't listen to you when you explain this, then you need to start looking for another job.

Moving on, there's no reason you can't move to a WLAN architecture, which sounds preferable given the physical environment in which you're functioning. Hopefully, you're running at least NetWare v5 so that you don't have to support IPX on the WLAN - not all WLAN gear has such support. Without knowing more about your environment, its hard to recommend specific gear, but I would check with manufacturers for "ruggedized" gear, if they make it. Most WLAN equipment is wholly electronic - no moving parts, disk drives, etc. You just plug it in and turn it on, then connect a laptop and configure it.

Expert Comment

ID: 9636210
I agree with PsiCop that you should be able to use wireless (802.11a/b/g) technology at your site. 802.11 uses the frequency range similar to cordless phones (not mobile phones, these are in the lower frequencies). Basically, the frequency used by wireless is in the "free" for use range (otherwise, licenses must be applied for to use them). Hence, consumers like us are able to use wireless "without licensing issues". Other than that, the power rating given off by the devices/antenna is somewhat low, so as to not give you a nasty shock or cause any major disaster if it comes into contact with a person, or around fumes. In this case, you should be more concerned about sparks, or arcing, as in the notorious cell-phones issue. Voltage arcs are caused by current jumping through air to a nearby contact point, usually through a sufficiently high voltage. Even at 120 or at even lower voltages, arcs/sparks can still occur. These are difficult to prevent as anything that requires a power source has the potential to produce arcs when first connected. I believe your site will have safety rules when it comes to handling electrical appliances. These same rules will apply the same way when you use your PC/laptop or wireless device. Other than that, wireless devices should not be any cause of concern with regards to the "wireless energy" you brought up.

If still in doubt, or concerned with regards to safety, I suggest you speak with your safety personnel to discuss this issue in length as lifes are at risk here and alleying your colleagues concerns/fears in general would be a good idea as well.
LVL 13

Expert Comment

ID: 9638628
Hey, I saw a person die on CSI from a cell phone spark (after he had been siphoning boat gas), so it must be true ;)

I would also suggest talking to the vendor of the equipment and seeing if they have done any testing in this area. If they haven't start waving your chequebook at them and convince them that you might be willing to spend some money if they can provide the research. Might not work, but can't hurt. The companies may do it so that they can use you as a "reference" dangerous site where they have installed wifi gear.
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LVL 12

Expert Comment

ID: 9641011
WLAN does not generate sparks, and can be used just like explosion proof radios. But a defective access point with a broken circuit board or a bad power supply can generate a spark. You would need an explosion proof plastic housing for the access point and the power supply.
But a more obvious question: does your computer use an explosion proof housing? If not, why not?

As for cell phones, the ringer is a piezo type and does not make sparks. More likely cause is a loose battery with a bad contact.


Accepted Solution

georgegg earned 375 total points
ID: 9787641
I have been on multiple rigsites where WLAN was in use for LAN and satellite connectivity.  Some of these sites prohibited the use of cell phones and radios due to fear of explosions.  The trick is to place your equipment outside of the hazardous area.  The hazardous area is mandated by convention rahter than reality, and varies dependeing where in the world you are.  Generally speaking, the hazardous area is on the rig floor and cellar, with the most hazardous (Zone 1) area a bubble of varying diameter around any exposure to the wellbore.  There is also a hazardous area around any downstream equipment or tanks.
The biggest problem i have encountered with wireless technology is in the Middle East, where all radio communications are very tightly regulated and require a lengthy licensing procedure.


Expert Comment

ID: 9807957
Any updates on this ?

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